Monthly Archives: January 2018

GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY – revisited Noel Coward Theatre

My principal review from the Old Vic is here ( . But now it transfers (with glorious irony to the Noel Coward’s the least Cowardy of all plays ever).

So I see it for the third time (the second, I booked a ticket of my own on the way home from press night. The fourth will be in March, as I did the same last night…).

A few brief observations.

I had not given enough weight to the  important anchoring performance of Ciaran Hinds as Nick, the landlord:  a beautifully understated, self-effacing lead.


There is something profoundly moving too in what McPherson has done with the democratic sharing of limelight and songs, a device sweetly in tune with the play’s broad understanding and compassion for all the characters: the weak, the criminal, the mentally disabled, the desperate .


The brilliance of Simon Hale’s  score of arrangements is more remarkable every time you hear it;  and  the clever thing is that  that taking Dylan’s music out of his lifetime and into America’s harshest Depression years smooths away any 1960s self indulgence and shallowness of young love,  and takes the lyrics deeper than ever .    The 1978 “Is your love in vain?” , after the love and loss and guilt of the xx family almost unbearable, and as for Forever young.. an audacity of compassion almost unbearable.


The ensemble remarkable as before: Sheila Atim has been Cumbered with praise rightly but for me Shirley Henderson expressing in every move the dementia and disinhibition of Elizabeth, and suddenly emerging through it into great anthems from the primal depth of emotion and perception, is dazzling. But bloody hell, they all are. I have seen it three times,  and have bought a high balcony ticket to go again before it ends. For my soul’s sake.      to 24 March

5 Meece Rating

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Everyone loves the film. Something in the nostalgic British psyche likes to think of a gang of ruthless desperadoes lodging with a dear old lady, pretending to be a chamber music quartet, but being foiled by her innocence and their own incompetence. It was a jewel of Ealing cinema and then a wonderful stage adaptation, and now Eastern Angles home in on it, in their Christmassy panto spirit, with their own spoofy account of a similar old lady, Binkie, and her boarding-house in a quiet Ipswich lane (it’ll be a side street in Peterborough when they move it there).


This time, to enable in-jokes about actors, theatre production finances and crazy headgear, the villains have broken out of Norwich jail and their plan is to put on The Importance of Being Earnest, lure in the whole street and nip out to burgle their empty houses during brief periods offstage. A cast of five is valiantly gender-blind (Emma Barclay doubles as Binkie and as CowCrusher the heavy, and Keshini MIsha is Chugger). And, for a lot of the time, they’re very funny. Especially Daniel Copeland as the dimmest, beardiest of them . His veteran drop-dead timing provides the best laughs of the show. Especially when he plays Gwendolen and rather likes it. And it’s quite funny when he plays the flute too, in the musical numbers, because a big bearded heavy with a sweet piping flute always is.



Which is, I fear, a bit more  drawn-out than it need be. Laura Keefe’s direction is full of good gags, not least the meta-theatre moments when they use us as the gullible audience, and Barclay’s turn as Binkie , full of local jokes (again, they’ll adapt them for Peterborough) is fun (“This is Rushmere Community Centre, where I first performed the Downward Dog”) . I loved the music, especially the robbery song, and more of that and less of the slower jokes would help. But, as so often, the spirit of place and the general glee the Angles’ Christmas show carries it through. Even into this filthy January.



box office to 27 Jan
rating three  3 Meece Rating

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THE TRANSPORTS Union Chapel & Touring

Touring Mouse wideTOP FOLK ON THE ROAD 


There are boxes , planks, a rope; around and upon them, singly and severally, still or moving, the aristocracy of modern folk music. Strings, accordion, guitars, oboe; voices hard and clear, powerful and determined, channeling timeless emotion.    Theatrecat wouldn’t usually do gigs, concerts, even opera. But this brief January tour is so remarkable, so theatrical In the power of its storytelling , that unless you have a real antipathy to folk you should know about it.


Besides, it comes apropos on top of that grander chronicle of the late 18c , Hamilton: because it was after the American colonies had broken free, and because they were not short  of slave labour, that our penal system resorted to the more distant transportation whose story inspires Peter Bellamy’s majestic song-cycle. The First Fleet took thousands of convicts thousands of miles to Botany Bay and founded white Australia (the narrator does make, in passing, the point that in effect we stole it from the aboriginal peoples).



Anyway, on the 40th anniversary of Bellamy’s creation, with prisons full again and our own world’s refugees crossing dark water to make new lives, arranger Paul Sartin and Matthew Crampton, who has written about refugee peoples, felt it the moment to revive it.   The Refugee Council ( has a stand at every performance, and an extra song about the drownings in the eastern Mediterranean by Sean Cooney is added to the original. But it’s the tre historical tale that thrills, and brings together a unique stageful of folk musicians and voices : The Young ‘uns, Nancy Kerr, Greg Russell, Rachael McShane, Faustus. Crampton narrates, Tim Dalling directs.



Told with authoritative passion, the tale is a true and remarkable one, from my own bleak East Anglian fields  at a time of agricultural poverty it moves to to Norwich Jail, where young Henry Cable meets Susannah Holmes, both reprieved from the noose for theft. Allowed cohabitation but not marriage in the harsh jail they bear a child; but Susannah is taken for transportation to found the colony at Botany Bay. An extraordinary series of events around her embarkation – a separation, a baby saved by unlikely heroism, an ambush of the Home Secretary at his own table – are so well told that I will not in is context spoil it for newcomers.



In performance it is remarkable: building , mesmerising, Bellamy’s deliberately naif folk rhymes and choruses sometimes rising to poetry but always direct: your nape prickles when Nancy Kerr as the mother who loses her man to the hangman and her son to transport sings . “The leaves in the woodland and the gulls on the shore, cry “you never will walk with your menfolk no more””. There are plaintive songs, but sharp satirical moments as the astonishing Rachael McShane scorns the life of a serving-maid, and lively moments in the Robber’s song and the storming Plymouth Mail on its mission of mercy. The farewell to England brings the whole company together. The great room shakes with it. Can’t stop listening to the album… On tour till 24 January. Final show, Norwich, where it began…
rating  FIVE  5 Meece Rating


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Honour to the Royal Court for two things. First for the initial wobble, then  for executing a rapid u-turn over Andrea Dunbar’ s rather wonderful play . So after all it completes its tour, as planned , by returning to the theatre where under Max Stafford Clark it first opened in 1982. That made, with sad brevity, a star of the 19 year old Bradford author – “a genius from the slums” someone wrote – and it stands firm in the Court’s tradition of making Britain look itself squarely in the face.



The initial panicky cancellation was understandable. Not only because  Stafford Clark of its parent company Out of Joint is now being accused of sexual misconduct (he left the production at the start of the rehearsal period) but for a subtler reason: the present-day common rhetoric paints all underage and exploited girls as purely victims, frozen and terrified – or drugged and bullied like the Rochdale and other grooming gang victims. Here, the uncompromising honesty of the author rather blows the doors off that, showing us something more complex. Another way it can be. Dunbar knew of what she wrote: pregnant at 15, her child stillborn , she bore another In her teens and two more, spent time in a women’s refuge, and died a heavy drinker at only 29.



But what a flare, what a shooting-star she was .  Her voice is that of women not only poor but very young, caught in a doldrum of social change and poverty but not pathetic, not cowed, nor burdened with adult commonsense . She does not underrate her protagonists’ excitement, animal energy and touching hopeless ambition for life and love.  The two  15 year old babysitters who have it off in turn in the car – or anywhere they can – with the bored husband and father Bob , twelve years their senior, are certainly being exploited. But they are also very much up for it in the , first eyewateringly explicit scene in the car (simple onstage chairs, it’s nicely stark with a hilltop Bradford backdrop). Rarely is the banal absurdity of congress so unflinchingly shown as in Kate Wasserberg’s production) . Rita and Sue continue as prime movers in the liaison, keen as mustard, unafraid, undrugged, funny and raunchy.



Of course the situation falls to pieces – with a delicacy of understanding and compassion which makes you weep again that Dunbar died young and. Of course the pain of Bob’s wife is real, and the girls’ final estrangement harder on one than the other; but in the centre of the  story, when the trio chase one another playfully round the theatre and collapse snuggled a trois on their hilltop , breathless and laughing, there is a real sense of fondness and fun. People can show spirit in the face of their various bleaknesses.  Only a writer who has lived it can show that.



It is played with fast, funny, touching honesty by them all: the girls are terrific, both in their teenage mercilessness and their moments of awkwardness in the adult world for which they aren’t as ready for as they want to be. Taj Atwal is a skinny, ambitious, more thoughtful Rita, and Gemma Dobson Sue (a great professional debut) bossy and brash but helpless with her dreadful father and dotingly  defensive Mum (Sally Bankes as everyone’s toughYorkshire matriarch) . The dynamic between the girls – best mates, fleetingly jealous, sharing Bob with wonderfully dismaying matter-of-fact immodesty – is perfect.



Bob’s initial seduction, a mixture of teacherly sex-education and employerly authority (oh, that two quid tip, seven in today’s money! Cider and chips money!) gives way to a kind of imprisoment. Most incorrectly in modern terms , Dunbar makes us momentarily sorry for the man who has created a monster in these two demanding teenagers wanting ‘a jump” , just at the moment when he is getting on a bit better with his children’s mother. He’s in a trap too, a declining economy costing him both work and virility: James Atherton’s momentary sob of despair when he fears losing his car is more moving than any abuser of fifteen-year-olds has a right to be.


Oh, it’s clever. And funny. And every laugh rings with bittersweet truths about youth and disillusion, the hunger for fun and fondness, the dislocating and liberating and destructive and absurd power of sex. Without sentimentality or piety or correctness, it captures life. And the ending, an older woman and a young one and a couple of rueful drinks, is perfect. No wonder Dunbar was reportedly so furious when Alan Clarke’s 1987 movie messed up her ending and made it crass. This is the real thing.


box office 020 7565 5000 to 27 Jan

rating five   5 Meece Rating


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After snowbound frustration in December drove me onto the road after part I, I saw the first again and  that evening reached the second play in one of those epic, unforgettable two-show days. So I can report on the final act in Mike Poulton’s magnificent adaptation from Robert Harris’ novels about the republican orator Cicero. After the Catiline conspiracy comes the rise and fall of Julius Caesar and the ensuing conflicts and tragedies.



Either play stands alone – the first perhaps more easily than the second – but together the rich intelligence and lively wisdom of this political, intimate saga is to be treasured. My review of the first play’s three acts is here: – so I will not repeat it. There’s the corpse in the river, the masterclass in the running dilemma of power politics, the t human portrait of a great, flawed, unforgettable man and his times. The quality of Poulton’s neat sharp filleting and fast-flowing narrative endures into the second – again split into three acts – and so does the clarity and tone of Doran’s direction, always allowing lively absurdity to lie alongside the deepest tragedy. Modern echoes vibrate, especially about America: OK, Pompey’s Trump wig is a good jok, but more fascinating is the general reflection – as Senate and wannabe dictators clash – of how very Roman are the structures and concepts of US politics; a different shape from ours, descended firmly from monarchy and Church…



So now just some brief reflections on that second play, DICTATOR. At first we have a vaunting Caesar in gold and scarlet, a spectacular chariot crash, assassination, a chaotic and comedic political panic, some crashing oratory and a really excellent ghost. All within the first fifty minutes.



But as the tale continues, with dismay, conflict, and Cicero’s exile and return, there’s pleasure in the growth: Joseph Kloska, the slave and scribe (now a freeman) was an entertaining and likeable guide-narrator in Part 1 and here flowers into an assertive, alarmed adviser to the ageing Cicero in his last decade as he tries, rashly, to reclaim his influence and revive Republican democracy in the face of Joe Dixon’s immense, craggy, thuggish, and noisy Mark Antony ( not Shakespeare’s artful politician at all). Scenes between him and Cicero are stunning, his eruptions volcanic. The problem of populism, and of the swirl and murk of chaos which follows the death of tyrants, speaks as strongly to us as in the first part. But intensely too come the two parts of the Roman dream , sword and plough ; military glory and quiet, philosophical farm life with wine and olives by the sea, as the freed Tiro the scribe is taken from it, back into the fray with a reviving Cicero,



McCabe’s Cicero, ageing before our eyes, his old virtues and vanities warring within him as he returns to the political fray and ultimate defeat, is superb as before, his family’s fraying and sadness a counterpoint to his fluctuating, flatterable urge to return, his integrity steelier as death comes nearer. Fascinating in counterpoint is Oliver Johnstone as Octavian, the adopted heir of Caesar and only 19. At first he gives us a virtuous school-prefect, almost a Harry-Potter saviour, who gradually hardens into something quite different. And the staging, fluent and evocative, gives us a sense of the Roman mob: always a presence, unseen but heard, or running shouting in the shadows or rising through the great trapdoor to bay at the Capitol steps.
It does not end well for Cicero, or for ideals of liberty. And yet, this most intelligent epic booms down the centuries to us, a tribute to the power of the word and to faith in reason, however doomed.

box office 01789 403493 to 10 feb
rating five   5 Meece Rating

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